HERE'S THE THING about having a pet: It will die. If it's a dog or a cat or a fish, it will probably die long before you do. Which means, if you loved your pet like a member of your family (and you do, right? Because why the fuck else would you bother keeping a pet?), you will someday wind up very sad, besieged with uncomfortable questions like: Now what?
Unsurprisingly, a quiet industry has sprung up to serve grieving pet owners looking to provide a sendoff just as ceremonious as any human might receive. On a recent rainy morning, I dropped in on one such provider, Dignified Pet Services in Tualatin, for a crash course in pet memorials and cremation.
Dignified sits at the back of an unassuming office park, dressed in somber browns. If your dog or cat or horse or whatever dies at home, Dignified will drive over in a van, 24 hours a day, all year, and pick it up. It also makes regular visits to some 50 vets' offices. Families can have a final few minutes with their pets in a special comfort room decked with soft chairs. If you like, you can also shop for a decorative urn—or wooden or plastic coffins. But that's your call. They stay away from the hard sell.
One time, Buddhist monks showed up for a mini-service, says manager Derick Baugher, a young guy dressed cheerily and professionally. "Don't assume things about grief," Baugher says. "We'll get a huge bearded cowboy guy who's absolutely bawling over a cat he's lost."
After their humans have said their goodbyes, pets are carted through a closed door in preparation for disposal. Four freezers line two walls, holding pets waiting for their turn in the cremation ovens. Dignified runs two main ovens ("Junior" and "Senior") and they generally work all day at 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit—enough to cremate a large dog in three hours, or a cat in about an hour to 90 minutes. A third oven, dubbed the largest in the Northwest, can hold up to 3,000 pounds. It's where they cremate horses—and that can take up to seven hours.
What comes out, Baugher explains, isn't ashes. It's bone chips, brittle and dried, and he makes his point by gesturing to two deep metal trays carrying what's left of a 220-pound Great Dane. Those bone chips are sorted and then poured into a steel grinder. That's what "ashes" are really made from.
Portland has just one pet cemetery, at the Oregon Humane Society. Baugher explains that 99 percent of clients choose cremation. Some people stay for the whole thing. They'll load their pets into the machines and press the buttons and listen as the remnants that come out are chewed into dust.
Dignified has cubbies where ashes sit in metal tins (complimentary!) for up to two years. Some owners wait to come back. Some never show up at all. Unclaimed ashes, once a year, are driven to the coast and given to the Pacific.
"It's kind of sad," Baugher says. "But just because a family doesn't want a pet back, that doesn't mean they don't love it."